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Sanchez is right at home

His first game at the Coliseum this season as USC's starting quarterback is a success, and the rest of college world is watching.

September 14, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

In the moments before kickoff, Mark Sanchez skipped across the field like a kid, spinning around, taking it all in.

The sold-out crowd. The television cameras. The electric buzz of a big game.

His first home game as USC's full-time starting quarterback.

Not a stand-in for the injured starter, like last season. This time, Sanchez was the man.

"A day you grow up dreaming about," he called it. "I just wanted to look at everything and feel everything."

Then, to cement the memory, Sanchez went out and threw four touchdown passes against a defense considered among the most experienced and talented in the nation, providing the big plays in top-ranked USC's 35-3 victory over fifth-ranked Ohio State at the Coliseum on Saturday evening.

"This was a significant game," his father, Nick, said outside the locker room. "He knew that."

It seems there is so much riding on this season, more than just Sanchez fulfilling his dreams of leading the Trojans' offense.

USC fans are banking on him. The college football world is watching. Much has been made of his standing as an inspiration to Mexican Americans.

On Saturday, fans stood in the student section with the letters "Viva Sanchez" painted across their chests.

But the season had started badly. During an idle moment in training camp, Sanchez tossed the ball to a teammate and felt pain as his kneecap inexplicably slipped out of place.

In the days that followed, he watched practice from a golf cart, honking the horn when teammates made big plays, wondering if he could recover for the opener.

Sanchez did recover, and played well at Virginia. Still, Coach Pete Carroll wondered about the emotional element of facing Ohio State in what was billed as the game of the season.

"Just trying to keep him calm," Carroll said. "Trying to keep him comfortable."

Sanchez did not exactly respond with career-type stats, completing 17 of 28 passes for 172 yards.

One particularly forgettable pass was intercepted in the end zone.

"There were a couple of plays I want back," he said.

But with those touchdown passes, he did what starting quarterbacks are supposed to do.

"That's basically what this game is about," receiver Damian Williams said. "Taking advantage of your opportunities."

A 35-yard strike to fullback Stanley Havili for a 7-3 USC lead. A deft play-fake, freezing the defense, before tossing a one-yard touchdown to tight end Blake Ayles.

Sanchez stayed on a roll in the second half with a 24-yard scoring pass to Williams.

The Trojans had figured that Ohio State would blitz. Dealing with that pressure and the Buckeyes' pass rush was critical, as evidenced by Sanchez' final scoring play of the night.

Late in the third quarter, he spotted Williams break wide open just as the rush bore down.

"I thought he got sacked," Williams said. "I was like, 'That's not cool.' "

But Sanchez took a few steps right, buying enough time to heave the ball to a lonely Williams in the far corner of the end zone.

"Their quarterback has pretty good feet," Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel mused.

Afterward, Sanchez used those feet to dance across the Coliseum floor once again, doing his best impression of the "Lambeau Leap" into a clutch of fans in the front row.

"I told myself something," he said. "I didn't want to forget this night."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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